Synopsis : Trapped in a war ridden reality, 8 year old Tala finds solace and freedom in a forbidden television. However, the secret TV becomes a matter of life and death.
Q&A with Director Murad Abu Eisheh, Director of Photography Philip Henze, Producer Phillip Raube, Actress Aesha Balasem
Q: “Tala’vision” is one of the live action short films which is now short-listed for an Academy Award. So congratulations, guys, great to have you with me. But to start it off, we’re going to play a trailer of the film and then we’ll go into the Q&A after that. Murad, congratulations on making the short list. Last time we chatted, this was one of probably around 150 films on the long list. I was delighted to see it on the short list. I think we all knew there was something special about this film at the time. So how did it feel to see “Tala’vision” there on the short list?
Murad Abu Eisheh : First of all, thank you for having us before. It’s so nice to see you again to discuss this film further. It was quite phenomenal. As I think [with] everyone else, you always have this first shock of hope, but we didn’t really imagine that we would make it to the short list. We’re still shocked. We’re having this mixed feeling of happiness. Some of the team members, we were together at a bar in our small student town, and we screamed quite loud. We scared some people in the restaurant.
Q: Great. Well, congratulations, it’s a great film. It’s a story that’s connecting with Academy voters. What was it that inspired you to tell this story?
Murad Abu Eisheh : It started with this newspaper article that I found outrageous: how ISIS banned television sets and access to media. But at the same time, I was thinking about myself and how I was formed. My personality, who I am today, was formed more or less by televisions. I was thinking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of children living in Iraq and Syria with no access to a window to the world. And I was wondering, what does that mean for the region? What does that mean for them as children and for their dreams? So all these thoughts came together and kind of formed the script for this film.
Q: So was it based specifically on a true story or just true events that you’ve read about in the newspaper?
Murad Abu Eisheh : In this newspaper? It was a small article and it had a picture of a lot of TVs piled on top of each other and a guy smashing them with a stick. I mean it’s not per se a particular story, but it’s inspired by true – something that really happened on the ground, which is the ban of televisions in Iraq and Syria.
Q: So you started in Jordan, am I right?
Murad Abu Eisheh : Yeah.
Q: Tell me a bit about that. What was that like? You are from Jordan, right?
Murad Abu Eisheh : I am from Jordan. Half of the crew was German, half the crew was Jordanian. It was quite an interesting experience to get everyone down there. [We] made the decision together that we wanted to shoot there in Jordan. Topographically, and architectural-wise, it really looks like Syria so it was the obvious choice for us to go shoot there. Plus it’s safe, and there [were] a lot of trained crews that would work on the project. So that was a big factor of it.
Q: Right. So Philipp [Raube], producer. You’re all from the same film school, right? It’s Film Academy Baden-Württemberg, this is a renowned film school that we keep hearing about. Because lots of films from there end up going on to be nominated for Oscars and win these big awards, right? Which is great, it’s got such a great reputation. So what was it about this project that made you want to get involved as a producer?
Philipp Raube: Actually good question. Because when we were starting the film, to producing it, we were in Europe facing this right-wing movement, especially in Germany. I think we need to give people these stories why people [are] leaving their homes, why they need to leave their homes. This was the very important aspect in making this film happen: finding reasons for these refugees. [Normally] people are not usually leaving their homes and to picture what the situation in Syria really is right now.
Q: Right. You’re from Germany, am I right, Philip? Did you find any challenges in producing something in a different way of working?
Philipp Raube : What it was like as a challenge? It was a student film and we got all the support. But I think what nobody did before at our film school and where we were like pushing the boundaries was [it was] an international co-production. So this was really equally set up between Jordan and Germany. We got money from our film school, of course, but we were also supported by the Royal Film Commission Jordan.
We have also a co-producer, Tabi360, we have another investor in having in-kind investment, Jordan Pioneers. So all this work, and contract-wise, it was quite insane. But we all loved the script from the first experts they interviewed on us. So it was really a huge team which was ever-supporting. It was quite crazy, yes. But as we are now here, I think we can all say it’s a work we are proud of.
Q: Okay. So we have here Aesha, who plays Tala, and it’s such a beautiful performance, really captivating. I think that’s what keeps viewers watching, because I think she really captured the essence of who this character is. Murad, you’re going to be translating for Aesha. Do you want to tell us a little bit about why you decided to cast Aesha in the role?
Murad Abu Eisheh : We had a real long casting process. I sat through castings over three months, saw over 200 girls for this role. Aesha was I think the only girl that reacted differently to the exercises and to the questions we were posing. She was quite unique in her answers. And especially the exercise we were doing with all the girls, she was the only one that reacted completely differently into it.
I remember looking at the time over at the casting director, and we both knew that we found her. And then we were putting her in front of the camera and looking at some of the rolls we shot, and she was absolutely captivating. With the first two sessions we realized how smart she is and how older than her age she is and that she has a really creative mind.
Q: Aesha, hi, how are you? Great to have you with us. So tell us what was it like for you working on this film. Did you enjoy it?
Murad for Aesha : She’s saying it was a phenomenal experience for her. She wanted somehow to contribute and give back to her own country because she is aware of all the suffering that the people in Syria are going through.
Murad Abu Eisheh : I think she wasn’t at the time really aware of what we were doing, but she became aware of it after she saw the film. So somehow now she’s being more advocate for the cause.
Q: Very good. So how old are you, Aesha?
Aesha Balasem : Ten.
Q: And what age were you when you shot the film?
Aesha Balasem : Eight.
Q: Okay, so you understand a lot more now than you did back then?
AB: Enam [yeah, exactly].
Q: So how did you prepare for the role? Was there anything you did, or did you work with Murad on that to get into the character?
Murad for Aesha: So basically she said the entire film crew was very helpful in preparing her for that.
Q: Especially Murad, I’d say.
MAE: Especially me.
Q: . . . . translating it. Put some good things in there about yourself, yeah.
Murad Abu Eisheh : I’m trying to portray myself better.
Murad Abu Eisheh : No, she mentioned we did a lot of exercises and improvs beforehand. But I would like to add to that as well: we didn’t first day prepare her for the character itself, but we were doing exercises to boost her confidence and to be able to be free in front of people and to express herself in front of the camera. So it was more like boosting confidence exercises.
Q: Okay. Philip Henze, who is the director of photography. I thought the film was so beautifully shot, really it’s a beautiful film to watch. The cinematography is almost poetic – the colors, the tones, everything. It’s a lovely film. It has a lot to do with how the viewer feels when they’re watching the film. So congratulations. Can you tell us a bit about the planning that went into that?
Philip Henze : Yeah. Actually, we knew – I knew that we were shooting with a child and it’s pretty hard to control. I mean, we have to have a kind of freedom on set with the child because she can’t put a dolly there, and do ten takes and do ten takes all over again. So our concept was to improvise much, actually, and to improvise for Aesha we needed space and flexibility. So our concept was to light everything from outside, to have nothing much inside the apartment. Just me as camera operator, the sound boom operator, Murad on the floor or on the staircase or something with the monitor. Not much people, not much distraction, to have her focus and concentrate.
Then in preparation: It was Aesha’s first time seeing a film camera and being on set, actually. So we did some exercises beforehand. I [brought] my own camera, film camera, and we went to a supermarket and ran around with my camera. The exercise was that she should not look into the camera and she shouldn’t notice me. So this was actually kind of fun. This was my first time with a small child; before, I shot with teens. It’s kind of similar in terms of flexibility.
Q: That’s very interesting. The film feels authentic and real. But there’s also something really beautiful about it.
So one of the questions here from BusinessFilm: Was there anything that was particularly difficult to film? Anything that stands out from your point of view, Philipp?
Phillip Raube : Difficult . . .
Q: From the production point of view, what would be the most challenging thing about making it?
Phillip Raube : I think the location was quite challenging, in general. But I think Murad or Philip can add more to that. We shot the film behind the international airport in Amman, which is a Palestinian refugee camp. I think it’s already ten years old. Our set designer did a really, really great job because the street wasn’t looking like that. It was really with so [many] stones, and arranging everything in a different way. This was from a budget-wise decision, to give so much budget into that, but I think it also was worth it. But Philip, maybe you want to add something for that.
Philip Henze : On one side, for sure production design was a huge part. It’s a refugee camp from the Forties, I think, so actually it looks like a normal town. It looks tiny, a bit more improvised and torn down in some parts, but we wanted to tell [it was] a war zone for sure. So we really had to put so much rubble in there.
But also, crowd control was kind of a big deal, because there were so many very curious people. They knew film sets because bigger productions from Hollywood shot there as well, before. But still it’s an event, so almost the whole town gathered around the film set. But we were shooting much in the apartment, so we had our private calm space, and outside everything was kind of wild.
Q: Great. Murad, there’s a question here from Simon Gideon: Why was “Tala’vision” the perfect choice as the film’s title? Did you have any alternate titles or was that the title you had very early on?
Murad Abu Eisheh : The title we had early on, actually, I was always convinced it was the working title and I don’t like it. It was “smart television” in Arabic, and it’s like a way of how children mispronounce the word “TV” – which I did as well, as a child – and it’s “Tala’s Vision”. But I don’t know, somehow I didn’t like it throughout the entire production. And then in postproduction, we were looking at the film and we’re like “Okay, no, that’s the title. We can’t put something else. That’s it.”
Q: It seems like the perfect title, I think. A question from Jos, Celeb Magazine: “Would you consider making “Tala’vision” into a feature? Is that something you’ve thought about? “
Murad Abu Eisheh : Actually not. I thought about it, of course. I got this question multiple times because people really liked it, and a lot of the people after screenings would come up to me and they’re like “I would see the feature of this film. Could you please do a feature?” But I think the beauty of this film – we designed it to be a short film. I think the story is concise, and it gets you to the emotional point that we want the audience to be at in such a beautiful time. So I would leave it there, I would leave it as-is. I wouldn’t do a feature of it.
Q: Right. I think it works very well as a short. It’s a nice length, so beautifully paced. So had you worked with children before?
Murad Abu Eisheh : No. This was my first experience working with children. I never directed a child before. I had never directed a teen before, I always worked with older actors, and professional actors. It was quite intimidating. I was really scared in the moments going into the production. I knew that a lot was counting on our casting choice so I was really careful during the casting. But the days before going to production I was like, “Oh, did I do the right decision?” You just have these concerns. Like we didn’t rehearse reading the script, because she was too young to understand, what’s the story, what’s a film, how to shoot a film. We really tried to explain that to her. So it was just following my gut feeling, actually. I did my preparations the best I could, and just jumped.
Q: So Aesha, back to you. Did you feel that you were quite similar to the character in this film? Are you a lot like Tala or would you say you’re different?
Murad Abu Eisheh : She’s a bit nervous. I’m just going to calm her down a little bit.
Murad for Aesha: Okay. She says she sees similarities, but now she’s living a normal life and she would like to think that she’s far away from it now.
Q: I remember the last time we talked. You were telling me that Aesha really connected with Tala to the point where people would ask her name and she would answer with the character’s name. She would say “Tala”. You were telling me a bit about the process you had afterwards to bring her back to normality and her own life again. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Murad Abu Eisheh : Yeah. One of our main concerns after casting her was slowly, with time, getting to know her more. The family and the production realized that she was a traumatized child from past experiences. So we had to sit with psychiatrists and children’s acting therapists, and really understand how to deal with her. One of the things was normally what children deal with on sets are, this problem is attention. You’re suddenly giving them an overload of attention. And then the day after shooting, suddenly it’s like “Cut” and they have to go back to their normal lives.
In Aesha’s case, it was even more exaggerated, because she comes from a poorer family, they were not in a very good condition at the time. She comes from a war zone, they just moved into this country, so we really needed to be very careful. So after the production, what we did [was], I stayed in Jordan a longer time, like a couple of weeks. We did this phasing out period, basically to not do this direct cut with her, and phase out the attention. And even with the attention on set, we tried to control it. I was one of two people that were allowed to talk to her. Afterwards, we brought her back to the set, show her how it was repainted, the fake walls we were getting out, and she met the real owners of the house.
She was a bit confused, because she was convinced for like weeks that this is her own house, and we had to convince her that no, this is all fake. Slowly making our contact with her less and less, because it’s a reality that we need to leave the country, like other people have to go back to their work, we won’t have the same contact as before. So we tried to be quite sensitive about that.
Q: Interesting process. Cinerama Magazine has a question for Aesha: “Aesha, you were fantastic in the film. Would you like to continue acting? Is that something you would like to continue doing in the future?”
Murad for Aesha : Okay. Basically, she’s saying yeah, for sure. She didn’t think before about this, but now, when opportunity shows itself, she will definitely do it.
Q: Okay, great. I think you’ve got a great future ahead of you if you want to do that. You were really great in the film and gave a lovely, natural performance. So well done!
Aesha : [thanking him]
Q: Celeb Magazine has a question for everyone: “How did you feel when “Tala’vision” was short-listed for the Oscars?” And someone else is asking: “Where were you?” Were you all together? Philipp Raube, do you want to start out with that?
Philipp Raube : I was in my flat and actually with two friends of mine in Berlin. So because of Covid restrictions, I wasn’t allowed to travel a lot at that time. It was crazy, I was like freaking out completely. I was on Twitter in that minute, checked it, and was sending out – it was insane, really.
Q: Where were you, Murad?
Murad Abu Eisheh : Yeah, we were spread out in Germany, so people who lived in this small town, like me and Philip, and the VFX producer, and our new producer on our new project. My sister was on the phone, Philip was on the other line. We were sitting in this bar – our student bar, more or less – and we were trying to act like it’s a normal evening. And we really scared some people by our shouting.
Q: Philip, where were you when you heard?
PH: I was with Murad. We were together in this small town and we celebrated. The hangover was quite intense.
Q: So what country are you guys living in now? Are you all in Germany?
Murad Abu Eisheh : We’re all in Germany. Aesha is in Cairo, she recently moved from Jordan to Egypt with her family.
Q: Right. Aesha is a refugee as well, right? Does Aesha remember any of that experience, from moving from Syria or was she too young at this time?
Murad Abu Eisheh : She remembers vaguely, I think, the most traumatizing experiences. Like after earning each other’s trust, and with the family, we opened up a little bit about this topic. She remembers, as a normal human, you know, you just remember from your childhood the hurtful moments or the moments that are extremely stressed or not normal. So she remembers those things quite clearly. She remembers a little bit about their old life, like their farm and how they used to live.
Q: So initially this film qualified for Academy Award consideration when it won at the Student Academy Awards, isn’t that right? Tell us a little bit about that.
Murad Abu Eisheh : Yeah, the entire thing was quite phenomenal and surprising, and it happened so quickly from a nomination. Our school put our names, because every film school puts up a film. They informed us that they would want to submit our film for consideration.
Q: Okay, so they have to choose one film?
Murad Abu Eisheh : I think in each category they would choose one, and they chose us for fiction and they submitted us. It was one in, I think, a thousand six hundred films submitted from around the world. I thought – I was like, okay, what are the chances, really? Yeah, suddenly I got this email and it was lockdown. We’re literally from getting nominated to winning the Oscars, it just all happened on a laptop screen, until now I feel like maybe it didn’t happen because we didn’t really go anywhere, we didn’t [meet anyone], we just spoke with people on media.
Q: It was in the middle of the pandemic, yeah.
Murad Abu Eisheh : But I mean, when it was announced, we knew at the time. We were already shooting our next short film, so most of the crew that worked on “Tala’vision” was in Jordan. We were all together and we had this nice rooftop gathering. We all watched the official announcement together.
Q: Well, great. I think the last time we spoke, you had literally just come from the stage at Red Sea [Film Festival] where “Tala’vision” won again. So it’s had a whole series of awards and successes. Tell us how that feels. It must be like a whole roller coaster for you now, is it?
Murad Abu Eisheh : Yeah, it was a complete roller coaster, I mean, especially at the beginning of, let’s say, the life of the film. We were like – I don’t know if I’m right, correct me, Philipp – we were looking for several months for a premiere, and we’re just getting rejection notes, and I was getting a bit depressed. I was like, is the film not good enough, or what’s happening? And suddenly we got into this one festival, and then afterwards it was just an explosion of festivals and one after the other. The most crazy part is, almost every festival we’ve been on, the film won. Which is absolutely mad. I think only three or four festivals that we’ve been on, we didn’t win. But literally every other festival we’ve been on, the film won, which is quite a high ratio. This entire roller coaster happened and in such a short time.
Q: Right. So Philipp, where are you when you’re in festival run with this? How long has it been screening? When was the premiere?
Philipp Raube: The premiere was one year ago, really exactly, I would say. It was at Film Festival Max Ophüls, it’s a very important festival for German newcoming [sic] voices, actually. And from there on, it went kind of viral, it was crazy. But we were waiting, I think, at least one or one and a half years. It was insane, and I was catching up with Murad and saying “Hey, everything is okay. We have our strategy”. And it was working well.
But we tried, really, because I believe as the producer on this film, we shoul really catch these “A” festivals. There were a lot of rejections, actually, and we talked a lot with the programmers as well: “why” and “why not?” and what they think [is] the film’s potential. They were still supportive, they [suggested], please try it here and there. I think maybe just all of a sudden, it got in the right time and the right circuit, and made it. Until here, until now, until the short list.
Q: It’s interesting to hear, once a film like this has taken off it’s doing brilliantly. But you’re finding the reaction to it has been overwhelmingly positive. What has the reaction been like in Jordan? Have you had the screening over there?
Murad Abu Eisheh : There it was phenomenal, honestly. The film is the first fiction film from the Arab world to win in the Oscars anything. There [were] no wins from Arabic-speaking films. It was quite celebrated back home by the Royal Film Commission [Jordan] and especially they were super-supportive of the film. They actually organized a massive screening of the film in one of the biggest cinemas in the capital [for] which we all went to Jordan. All the entire production and Aesha and everyone [were] there. It was the first time we saw the film together as a team, actually. This was in October . It was the first time we all sat together and saw the film together.
Q: How nice! Okay, question for Aesha: Aesha, have your friends seen the film? Have your family seen it? Are your family proud of you to be in this film? What has the reaction been like from your family and your friends when they’ve seen the film?”
Murad Abu Eisheh : They were extremely proud and shocked, because they really didn’t expect it to be that way. They were extremely proud and happy for her.
Q: Good. Here’s a question for everyone:“What was the most challenging part of each of your roles?” Murad, do you want to start? What would you say was the most difficult part for you?
Murad Abu Eisheh : The most difficult thing for me was actually the casting process, and dealing with a seven-year-old — she was like seven and a half at the time – and trying to understand how a child thinks and direct it. This was, I think, not only most challenging thing on the film, it was the most challenging thing I did as an adult, actually.
Q: And Philipp, for you what would you say was the most challenging part of shooting this film? Did the pandemic affect your shoot, by the way? Were you shooting over that period?
Philipp Raube : Yeah. We were lucky enough we shot in September the year before 2019 so we luckily not touched by this pandemic. But I would say, really convincing a film school of an international coproduction [with] all the cash flow, the insurance. I’m so happy to have such a great team with Istaya, Gabriel and do it like it was insane. Also finding the right balance within the team and everyone got on it], and also we needed to just try and figure it out. I took a lot of that with me.
And also, for sure, the festival strategy because it’s also like a huge ballast you’re wearing and you’re trying and you’re failing and you try again. Of course, as a producer, you’re trying to carry everyone’s back at a moment.
Q: Okay. So Phil Henze, was there anything you wanted to add to that about challenges from a DP point of view?
Philip Henz : Yeah, actually, I feel the same way as Murad. This was the most difficult project, the most difficult film I’ve ever done. At the same moment [that] catching all the beautiful moments Tala is giving us, but also being flexible and not being too documentary-style and having it look like a beautiful feature film. That’s why it was a difficult film.
Q: Did you plan every shot or did you end up just adapting on the day, and to the situation?
Philip Henz : We did a shot list, definitely. We knew what we needed, kind of clockwise, and what we needed to see. But for sure we improvised much and dealt with the circumstances we found on the day.
Murad Abu Eisheh : I did act it out — that improvisation was based on planning as well. I tried to create the situation where she’s bored. Like, we wanted her to paint or something and we would just put some books and painting color and let her be. And naturally, as a child, she would grab it and start doing it on her own. We tried to create the situations we aimed for.
Q: The whole thing seems really natural and beautiful. There were some really lovely moments. A lovely score, as well; it evokes a great mood. That combined with the cinematography and the themes you got.
Murad Abu Eisheh : Something quite interesting about the score, it was done by Nils Wrasse from Munich. He didn’t read the script. I just wrote him some paragraphs of emotions and he was composing right and left. He had no idea what the film was about and he was just composing to emotions. After I think the third draft of the edit, I showed him the film, after we concluded which direction we wanted the music to be. He saw the film and he was like, wow, okay. And then we took what we had concluded and we adapted it to the film. So it was quite an interesting process.
Q: Right. It’s really nice, it’s subtle. So we ask Aesha: what was the most challenging part for you? What was the most difficult thing to do, would you say, Aesha?
Murad for Aehsa : She’s saying she had one particular scene that was really extremely difficult for her, which is after they get out of the apartment at the end of the film, when she’s hugging her dad. That’s the scene she’s talking about.
Murad Abu Eisheh : For her it was a very emotionally charged scene, and she felt that she [was] not able to deliver there on the emotion. And we had to repeat a lot. But she felt it.I remember on set she came to me, and she told me “What can I do?” She felt that we were all stressed. I kind of fed on that stress of hers to get the scene, actually. She was quite stressed out because we repeated the shot so manty times.
Q: So what would you like people to take away from the film, Murad, after they watched it?
Murad Abu Eisheh : I think for me, it’s just an understanding of first, as Philipp mentioned in the beginning, why people would leave? Or what’s the background of the circumstances they came from? The main thing for me is just to point out where dreams get destroyed and how this could feed into the infinite cycle of madness that is happening in the Middle East. That you don’t need a bomb dropping on your house and you losing your entire family to be traumatized. It could be something very small, as a TV or something very delicate for a child. A small dream could be ruined and it could destroy [him or her] as a person. That was the entire thing for me: to point out where it all starts, where things start to get wrong.
Q: Okay. So final question: What would it mean for you to win an Oscar for this film? Well, to get nominated and then . . . winning?
MAE: [laughs] I was going to say, getting ahead of ourselves. I think getting nominated is just beyond anything I dreamt of – I think for any of us. I never in my life thought that I would be in this seat so early on. You know before, when you’re studying, you’re like “I worked my ass off” for like thirty years and you’re doing film after film, and then you might get a shot at it. So just being in this position in such a beginning point in our careers is so overwhelming. Just getting nominated I think would be absolutely out of this world.
Q: So Philipp, did you think when you started working on this film, when you decided you were going to produce it, did you imagine that you would get to this stage with it?
Philipp Raube: Never, actually. Never. But I believed in the story. But sometimes it’s also like luck or support, or you know you have something around which is making you there. But what I think is, I would love this film to be nominated because I think we have such a powerful and important story. And if we can reach with a short film [to] more audiences that they really can understand what we really want to tell, this would be amazing. That would be the greatest gift for me.
Q: Right. Well, I think it’s a great film. I’m delighted to see it here on the Short List, it absolutely deserves to be there. I hope you get a nomination, I think it deserves one. It’s obviously connecting with Academy voters. So I hope you get that nomination, I hope it goes all the way, and I hope we’ll see you at the Oscars. Thanks so much for joining me.
Here’s the trailer of the film.